By Robert Fraser
Well-managed, small, mixed agroecological farms are more productive per hectare than the industrial kind, more wildlife-friendly, kinder to livestock, and drive positive social change. So far, so good. But from the average high street bank’s point of view, these outcomes are seen as a problem, not a virtue. Small-scale enterprises are not about a ‘grow, grow, grow’ model, which is what most banks favour.
It follows that poor access to finance is now a big problem for small agroecological food and farming businesses. It can lead to a dependency on grants and very often, to the demise of the business. So where can small food and farming enterprises get affordable finance from?
At the Real Farming Trust we support small food and farming enterprises through our Loans for Enlightened Agriculture Programme (LEAP), an innovative funding solution which offers a mix of loan and grant. We work with existing cooperatives, social enterprises and community businesses which are past the start-up stage and might now be struggling to get to the next step. We’re interested in supporting agroecological businesses of all types – from micro-dairies and community bakeries to ethical supermarkets and veg box schemes.
It’s not just about the money. We offer mentoring to businesses, alongside the finance. We advise on governance and business planning, including financial forecasting, so that people can feel confident about making loan payments. The really key thing though is that we understand the food and farming sector, and want to see small, ethical, local enterprises succeed.
For Laurence Jarrett-Kerr at Soul Farm near Falmouth, LEAP has enabled them to grow their veg box scheme and expand into a local farmers’ market:
“Where LEAP come in is they really do see the viability of the business we are running and they’re prepared to help us – their goal is to help people grow food, and farm. And the banks’ goal is not to do that, the banks’ goal is to get their money back.”
As well as offering mentoring alongside the finance, we work with each business to measure social impact, which can attract more investment. Working together towards a shared goal is important, as Caroline Bennett at Sole of Discretion, an ethical fishmonger in Plymouth, explains:
“You need investors or lenders such as LEAP to be able to share the vision of these small-scale collectives and, as a community, work and learn from one another.”
In Glasgow, veg box social enterprise Locavore borrowed money from LEAP to take forward and open their shop in Partick. Locavore’s Managing Director Reuben Chesters is clear that LEAP works because we understand the sector:
“If you borrow money from a bank they generally don’t know very much about your business, they don’t know much about sustainable agriculture and building a better food system, but LEAP does.”
Growers choosing a no-pesticide route face many challenges which can take years to overcome, as Rob Alderson at Goonown Growers in St Agnes explains when he talks about dealing with wireworm – but he has a long-term self-sustaining vision of growing which the Real Farming Trust supports:
“For us it’s just so important that this type of food production is supported and in an ideal world, you know, we’d have a government that was supporting this kind of small-scale sustainable farming… that’s why it’s great that LEAP exists and is able to step in and support.”
Find out more about LEAP. Funds are available until the end of 2022.